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Production Journal

Howard Armstrong was the subject of a documentary film by Terry Zwigoff entitled Louie Bluie that was featured in the POV series in 1988. Filmmaker Leah Mahan talks about how to build new and original approaches to a topic or a person already covered in previous documentary work.

POV: Why did you feel like making another film about Howard? What did you want to convey in your film that wasn't in the first? Or were you coming at this subject with completely different goals? What process did you go through to ensure that Sweet Old Song wasn't too similar to Louie Bluie?

Leah Mahan: I met Howard through Barbara Ward in the early 1990s and I didn't see Louie Bluie for several years after that, so I had no preconceptions about him based on that documentary. I knew him only as Barbara's intriguing gentleman friend, and I was fascinated to know him and learn more about what made their relationship tick. When I did see Louie Bluie, I was struck by how different Howard's life was a dozen years later. Howard and Barbara met in 1983, while Louie Bluie was in production. By the mid-1990s, all of his contemporaries had died and he had moved out of his senior citizens' apartment in Detroit to live with Barbara in an artists' loft in Boston. My fascination was with their relationship, and the fact that it had started this whole new era in both of their lives. They are both very independent, strong-minded people with very different approaches to the world. But somehow it worked. I didn't get the funding (from ITVS) to make the documentary until 2000, so I had a long relationship with the two of them before I ever picked up a camera. I understand that Terry Zwigoff sought Howard out because of his fascination with a 1930s recording he had heard and his deep knowledge of that musical genre. I knew nothing about Howard and very little about his style of music before I met him. I wanted to focus on Howard and Barbara's life together in the present, and the only place for overlap was in Howard's repertoire of music and stories. I was careful during the editing process to avoid repeating any of these unless there was a compelling reason to do so. But more importantly, no single hour can capture all there is to learn from an individual's life, and I think there is a lot to learn from seeing these two very different perspectives on Howard.





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